This is not the beginning of the title run-in. This is not the start of the middle, or the beginning of the end. Let’s face it, nobody really knows what’s going on up there in this jetlagged oddity of a Premier League season, when points have been scattered with luxurious abandon, and none of these teams seem ready to find a sustained higher gear.
Not that it makes much difference. There will, as ever, be an urge to portray Manchester United’s trip to Liverpool on Sunday as something more decisive, a make-or-breaker, a full-on Super Sunday Judgment Day-style Showdown.
There is some logic to this. Title-winning teams have tended to drop very few points in recent years. In a non-Covid version of the current timeline, a January meeting of champions and league leaders would carry real jeopardy. Last season Liverpool’s most decisive league victory came as early as November.
That game was also at Anfield, the day Fabinho scored, the home crowd became an irresistible noise and Pep Guardiola capered about whirling his fists at the sky, King Lear in a grey knitted cardigan. That was pretty much a wrap.
Back in the current hungover version of reality, the top of the Premier League has been a slow bicycle race so far. Nothing will be settled at Anfield, no decisive stage win achieved. And yet Liverpool v Manchester United does still feel like a hugely significant occasion for both of these teams.
For United in particular this is a timely test. That recent fine run of form will face a genuine stress-test. And on a more micro-level Anfield will also offer an examination of the outer limits, right now, of Bruno Fernandes’s influence.
It is another small note of regret in a season-long symphony that Fernandes won’t get to play in front of an Anfield full house. Aged 26, this will be his first game for United against Liverpool. That strut, that air of command, the badge on the shirt: Fernandes v the Anfield crowd feels, in the best possible sense, like a pantomime waiting to happen.
For now he has been that rare thing, a genuinely transformative signing. United have lost three times in the league since he arrived in January last year. Fernandes has racked up 27 goals and 17 assists and gone from a mid-20s star of the Portuguese league to next off the rank for a spot in the Fifpro midfield of the year.
In the process he has been garlanded with expectation, with some jazzed-up talk of a decisive Cantona-style ignition. There are, though, levels to this, and one very obvious next step. Time to start nailing it in the big games.
This United team are more fluent than the version that sat deep and played counterattack against stronger opponents in the first half of last season. But they have also become less effective in those games, with Fernandes struggling to assert his influence.
Since the summer resumption last June United have played seven matches against the stronger Premier League teams plus two against Paris Saint-Germain, a nine-game run that has brought five defeats, three draws and one win.
In those games Fernandes has scored five goals, all penalties. More recently he has been notably ineffective against PSG, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham.
This being football, it will be tempting for some to see a player reaching the end of his scale of influence, some kind of flat-track, empty-stadium penalty-fraud. The reality is of course something else.
All players are less effective against stronger opponents: this is what makes them stronger opponents. And United are still learning to play around Fernandes.
Recently there has been a sense this team have found their own way of winning, entering a kind of surge-period either side of half-time, like a 400m runner relaxing into the straight, when the players just seem to settle and find their rhythms. Perhaps there is a lot to be gained at a time like this from having a manager who seems indecently calm, beaming on from the sidelines like a supportive uncle.
But that style might also offer the odd point of weakness. It is often said a key part of Fernandes’s impact is his invigorating swagger, a player entirely unbowed by the shirt. And he is fearless, one of those athletes who seems to play on every stage the same way, entirely lost in the moment.
But his real impact is tactical. His key skill is an obsession with finding space between the lines, taking the ball from any angle and passing it forwards with one or two touches. In those moments Fernandes is a kind of footballing WD40, greasing every attacking phase with his touch and movement, and wanting constantly to be involved.
Five minutes before half-time against Burnley on Tuesday he could be seen haring off into the six-yard box in pursuit of an overhit cross. Sixty seconds later he was at right-back stifling a break. In the second half he played deeper, spreading the ball wide as United found their surge. His instant pass to Marcus Rashford made the time that made the cross that made Paul Pogba’s volleyed winner.
This urge to play with the brakes off, a free element in an otherwise stodgy midfield, has been like a miracle ingredient in this United team. It turns out a “split”, linear team is a perfect fit for a player who was born on the half-turn, who lurks like a zealot in those in-between spaces. This is the presence the entire setup – midfield block; pacy, head-down attackers – was thirsting for.
Even his 15 goals from penalties – a startling number in a single calendar year – are evidence of his influence rather than a way to undercut it. United aren’t being given these spot-kicks because of a lizard-referee illuminati conspiracy. They get them because of a style of play: quick, accurate passes to the feet of attackers who like to weave and dribble at a time when defending is systemically difficult. This isn’t luck. It’s a smart tactic well executed.
But there is also a looseness that comes with this Bruno-led style. There is a reason Fernandes took seven years and five clubs to reach this level. For all his talent he was seen as a headstrong creative midfielder, prone to overplaying his hand, taking too many risks, giving the ball away.
Again, this is all part of the current chemistry. United needed a risk-taker. Fernandes often has a 70% pass completion rate, but this isn’t giving the ball away or making mistakes, it’s pressing forward, offering edge and threat, allowing the midfielders behind him to remain within their own statelier comfort zone.
It is no surprise this high-throttle style – the risky passing, the constant motion from a deep No 10 or inside-left position – has led to more mixed results against opponents better equipped to punish the opportunities it presents. Going toe-to-toe on these occasions rather than hiding behind their guard is the next stage for an evolving team, and Sunday a good place to start.
It is an oddity of this toxic old Lancashire derby that it has rarely been a title-chasing double-header. These two teams may have won a third of all English league titles, but this has been an alternating dominance, with distinct eras of supremacy.
More often this game has been a decoration, a matter of scores settled and personal legends forged. After a year of fearless, fast-forward progress, Fernandes has a chance to burnish his own.